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Pirate Attacks On The Rise Off East African Coast


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Here are headlines from some of the stories we're following today here at NPR News. Missouri has gone for McCain. More than two weeks after the presidential election, John McCain unofficially leads Barack Obama by just over 3,500 votes, a narrow margin that breaks the stake status as a presidential bellwether.

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Yesterday, the 25 crewmen aboard the Chinese merchant ship, the Delight, were captured off the horn of Africa. Earlier this week, a Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million worth of oil was hijacked off the coast of Somalia. There have been some numerous attacks reported in the area this year as high as 80 all by pirates. We'll speak in a moment with an expert on modern piracy. Who they are, how do they capture these huge tankers, what's being done to stop them? And we'll talk with a reporter who spent some time training with pirates.

If you'd like to talk to either gentlemen, our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255, our email address is [email protected]. Joining us now from Hippo Studios in Warwick, Rhode Island is Derek Reveron. He's a professor of National Security Affairs at U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Hi, Derek.

Professor DEREK S. REVERON (National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College): Hi and thank you for allowing me to share my personal views today.

STEWART: Of course. In the case of the hijacking of the Saudi oil tanker, this happened miles - hundreds of miles off the coast of Africa. Is that unusual in terms of pirate attacks?

Prof. REVERON: Well, it is and it shows a level of sophistication that we haven't seen and in East Africa in particular, these pirates that operate out of Northern Somalia are particularly bold where for any country to operate ships or attack craft 500 miles off a coast, it requires some level of sophistication.

STEWART: When we talk about levels of sophistication, what are we talking about they have at their disposal?

Prof. REVERON: Well, it's a whole network of probably thousands of people that work together. They - the classic term is mother ship operations. Where the pirates will operate probably out of fishing vessels in the Gulf of Aden, and then they'll have really specially trained people that can find their target in the new small boats and conduct very quick raids and seize a merchant ship as you described.

STEWART: One of the big questions I've heard from more than one person is how does a small boat take on a huge tanker?

Prof. REVERON: Well, it's not quite a fair fight. You know, it's typically, you know, six small boats might surround a large tanker, and when you're the tanker captain, and you're taking fire from automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades and these guys are boarding your ship, they have felt compelled to stop, because they don't have security teams necessarily on board.

STEWART: Do you think that will change?

Prof. REVERON: Well, I think we're starting to see that. The international community has responded. The U.S. Navy and its coalition partners in the region established a Maritime Security Patrol area which essentially is a safe corridor for merchant ships, and they've had some success with that. The European Union has sent down some of its warships. But we're talking about an area that's four times the size of Texas. And it's a very large area, so simply sending American or NATO or Russian or Indian warships to the area is not going to solve the problem.

STEWART: You know, to be clear here, we're not talking about a romantic idea of pirates. They're criminals and do you think it's fair? I've seen this in a couple of places to have called them terrorists.

Prof. REVERON: I don't think that's quite right. I mean, I tend to think about it more as - it's organized crime at sea that - they are a criminal network. They're operating out of an area whether there's no effect of government, Northern Somalia, and in many cases, you know, this group has really monopoly on power in the region, and they bring tremendous economic impact to the region as well. I think this year, the shipping companies paid a ransom. They've paid about $30 million this year, and in Somalia, $30 million goes a long way.

STEWART: Well, that brings me to my next question is the goal ransom or is it what's actually on the ship? The grain, the oil.

Prof. REVERON: They appear to be associated really just with the ransoms that they have currently about 12 vessels in Somali waters - probably the most thought about is the Haina(ph). It's the ship that's carrying Russian tanks and small arms that the U.S. and other navies are watching closely. They don't appear to be stealing the cargo. It's a business transaction. They seize the ship, seize the crew and then they start the negotiations. And, so they have at the high end from the attack, they can do this attack, but they have a very good support network ashore of accountants, negotiators and people that make these electronic transactions happen.

STEWART: Derek, we have somebody calling from Durham, North Carolina, who has a question for you. Hi, Eric. How are you?

ERIC (Caller): I'm doing well. How are you?

STEWART: What's your question?

ERIC: Well, I was - in thinking about the challenges in protecting these ships. I know you have all these individual vessels going through a very large area of water. I was just wondering if there had been any thoughts of using some of the same strategies as they use in World War II. Where it's - rather than trying to protect a bunch of individual crafts that they created large convoys with the idea that it's just as difficult to find ten ships together as it is to find one ship together.

STEWART: What do you think, Derek?

Prof. REVERON: No, I think that's being tried with the Maritime Security Patrol area. They're not quite convoying, because you're talking about a waterway that's heavily trafficked. The waterway connects Asia and Europe together and when you're talking about the free flow of commerce, the idea of - that moves at its own pace. And, so if the navies of the world got together and try to do these convoy operations, I don't think commercial companies would be ready for something like that.

STEWART: We're speaking with Derek Reveron, a professor of national security affair at the U.S. Naval War College. We got an email from a gentleman named Guy. And he writes to us, "one thing I don't understand and have not yet seen a comment on is why the countries/banks involved in paying the ransoms can't just follow the money. There has to be some big figures are behind the fishermen pirates. Why can't the world just go after the top bosses - the recipients of the ransoms?" Do you have any thoughts on that?

Prof. REVERON: That's a great point. I would just say you can look at the issues of money laundering and drug trafficking in general and see that governments have attempted to go after the money and that's probably a key issue. But, because of the national banking laws - some countries are easier to bank in and facilitate transactions like these that occur.

STEWART: Want to bring in Peter Gwin to our conversation. He is here in Studio 3A with me. He's a staff writer for National Geographic and has spent some time with pirates in Southeast Asia. And, I know you had a thought about why not just follow the money?

Mr. PETER GWIN (Staff writer, National Geographic): Well, I mean, what Derek says is exactly right. I mean it's hard - it's harder than we would think to trace the money. I mean there was just a report out, I think, earlier this week about the difficulty in tracing the funds for al-Qaeda. They still haven't been able to sort of stop all the funding. So, I think it seems like an obvious thing but it's much more tricky than it would always appear.

STEWART: Now you actually went through pirate training. Is that fair to call it that or some sort of training of how people become pirates? What exactly did you experience?

Mr. GWIN: Well, I was able to meet with some pirates in Indonesia, and I asked the question that you asked earlier. How does a little ship take on a big ship? And it turns out that's sort of a mischaracterization, way to think of it. It's not really the ship taking on the ship. It's the guys on the little ship taking on the guys on the big ship. And surprisingly, these huge ships are actually run by fairly small crews. And the parts in Indonesia - I don't know exactly the model in Somalia - but in Indonesia, it's all done at night and these pirates use the small boats to get in close to the big ships. And a lot of times, they get in the wake behind the ship.

It's hard for them to see back there. It's hard for the radar to pick them up. And they follow the wake up to the large ship and then they use grappling hooks and other things to get on board. And once they're on board, the captains of ships have told me and other crew members, the game is over. Once they're on board the ship - and these guys are armed and usually the crews are not armed, it's all over with. So the trick is to get close to the ship and get on. And once that happens, it's all over.

STEWART: From the pirates you met, Peter, who are they?

Mr. GWIN: You know, that's an interesting thing it's not - I think it's a mistake for us to talk about are they terrorists or are they criminals exactly, because it's a lot of different things. One of the things that piracy, just to back up a step - one thing that piracy has in common in all these places - in the Malacca Straits, which is the narrow channel between Sumatra and the Malaysian Peninsula off the coast of Somalia, as well as the Niger Delta, another huge piracy hotspot. All of those have in common there's instability in the region...

STEWART: In the government.

Mr. GWIN: In the government. There's plenty of weapons. There's a large measure of corruption generally. And, then there's also an economic incentive. And, then also they're actually all close to shipping lines. And in Indonesia, the Malacca Straits, you really see three different flavors of piracy. You had these guys that I spent time with that call it shopping - they're shoppers. And they really - they're after the cash and the valuables they can rob from the crew, but very quickly. It's sort of like knocking over a liquor store to them basically. It's a quick night out. You go on, you hit the ship, you get off and you make a few thousand dollars.

Another model there is organized crime - much more organized. They want the whole thing. They want the ship, they want the commodity. It's very easy to off load thing like diesel fuel, tin ingots believe it or not, there's a big market for that in the pirate community. And sometimes, the ships themselves - they turn the ships into these phantom vessels where they change the nameplate, they reflag it another country and they use it actually as part of their operations. The Somalia and warlords have done quite a bit of that. And then the last flavor I call it in the Malacca Straits was a separatist.

In Northern Sumatra, you had the (unintelligible) insurgency fighting for independence, and they used a similar model to the Somalis. They wanted to take fishermen ransom and hold them for ransom and use the money to fund their insurrection. And, I have to say, you know we were talking about - you know what are these guys (unintelligible) organized crime or whatnot. You know, I think it's important to remember and go back to the fact that piracy emerged in Somalia and certainly, the northern part of the Malacca Straits in measure - a large measure in response to the fact that foreign fishing trolleys were coming into their waters and scooping out, you know, small fortunes in fish.

STEWART: And they lost their livelihood and...

Mr. GWIN: And there's no government there to protect them. And so these guys armed themselves and went out and confronted the fishermen - the foreign fishermen - and started demanding the piece of the action. Well, it's escalated down to where the fact that they can make a heck of a lot more money than just getting the tax on fish.

STEWART: We're talking to Peter Gwin, staff writer for National Geographic. He spent some time with pirates in Southeast Asia. We're also speaking with Derek Reveron, a professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I do want to go to a caller on line four. This is Eric from San Francisco. Eric, what do you think about this conversation?

ERIC (Caller): Yeah. I love the show but a few minutes ago I heard you say that these are not romantic pirates, and I thought that was a judgment that I'm not prepared to make, and I think that part of that romance for the pirates has always been that they're outside the law, and I understand that they're dangerous criminals, and they're not Disneyland "Pirates of the Caribbean." But I think that people have always wanted someone to do something different. I'm sure that's Saudi Arabia and Somalia are not perfect places, and I'm sure that the pirates serve some function that some people probably find attractive and maybe even romantic.

STEWART: What do you think about that Peter?

Mr. GWIN: There's a little bit of the Robin Hood thing going, and I went to some of the villages where the pirates come from and there's a lot of payback money that comes back through. One of the guys I'd met built a mosque in his town. They definitely sort of take care of their own. There are certainly reports that's what happens in the northern part of Somalia where a lot of the pirates are reportedly coming from. But, the idea that it's romantic is I really have a hard time with that because you meet these guys and the lives they lead are pretty dark. And the majority of them blow their money on vices like drugs and prostitutes, and there is a lot of, you know, it's - to sort of romanticize is a real mistake because it is a major problem. And it definitely has global implications and that's just the wrong way to think about it, I think.

STEWART: Eric, we thank for your call. Derek, I'm going to ask you to listen to Julius from Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Julius.

JULIUS (Caller): Yes. Hello.

STEWART: Hi. So what point did you want to make about security?

JULIUS: Well, first of all, I love your show, and what I'd like to ask Peter is why don't these big ships arm themselves? I mean, they're carrying a $100,000 of oil, why don't they spend some money on security?

STEWART: Derek, would that make a difference if they spent a lot of money in the security?

Prof. REVERON: Well, that's one possibility. But, I think in the short term, it has a potential to really escalate the violence, and as Peter mentioned, these are relatively well-trained individuals and when you have small crews that operate modern commercial ships they don't really want to escalate the violence and when you start taking casualties that's not appealing for anyone. And, that's why typically after the ship has ceased there's not much of a fight there.

STEWART: Let me get to Rich in South Bank(ph). (unintelligible) this thought. Hi, Rich. Hey Rich, can you hear me?

RICH (Caller): Like that oil tanker that was hijacked recently, a supertanker. It's kind of hard to hide a ship that big. What would stop like NATO getting together and sending a couple of destroyers out there and just grab all of it and take it back?

STEWART: All right, Rich. Thanks for the question. Do you have thoughts on that, Peter?

RICH: Well, like Derek said. You're escalating the violence. I mean, you're talking about - in some cases, these are chemical tankers, there's ammunition on the Ukrainian ship that was delivering weapons that was hijacked by the Somalis has tons of explosives. Then, also you risk the crew. I mean, you can go and take the ship, but then everybody dies and the cargo's lost, and the ship is lost. So, the ship owners are really, they don't want to go down that road, and that's why ransoms are paid. The ships are worth a lot of money. The cargo's worth a lot of money. That's their number one interest to get it back?

The other thing about arming and that was a great question, and that's something I ask a lot. Why don't you give your guys, you know, some automatic weapons, and you can fight back. Because a lot of times the pirates are lightly armed at least in Southeast Asia, it's knives for the most part. A few times, guys talked about carrying guns, but the answer to that is there's other issues in addition to what Derek said. There's the fact that in Malacca Strait, you're either in Indonesian waters or you're in Malaysian waters and those authorities don't want ships armed. In fact, there was a big scandal where some wealthy guy who owned a yacht was trying to sail through the area. It's a reputedly dangerous place. He was caught with an automatic rifle and put in jail, and it took a long time of negotiations, you know, to get the guy out of jail without facing a long prison term.

STEWART: Derek, I'm going to give you the last question quickly. What's the solution? Is there a solution?

Prof. REVERON: Well, I think in the short term, establishing the safe zone and increasing the number of war ships but the long term is to really understand that piracy begins ashore. And, so it's a very difficult task to try to address the issues of Somalia. The government does not control the territory. These groups fill the void of the government by providing resources, and they have somewhat popular support.

STEWART: Big political issues there as well. Derek Revern - Reveron, excuse me, is a a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. Thank you, Derek.

Prof. REVERON: Thank you.

STEWART: Peter Gwin is a staff writer for National Geographic. Thank you for sharing your stories and reporting. We appreciate it.

Mr. GWIN: Thanks.

STEWART: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.